Eating Out With Allergies

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Eating in restaurants when you have food allergies can be a source of anxiety (especially if you’re in an unfamiliar restaurant). As long as you keep your allergies in mind, you can find ways to eat out safely. When I eat out at a restaurant that I am not familiar with, I often ask if the restaurant has an allergy menu outlining the common allergens found in their meals.

When choosing what I am going to order, I often pick two items in case there is an issue for some reason. I always inform the waiter of my allergies, regardless of whether I have eaten there before, so that the kitchen can be aware and take extra precautions. I personally find it easier if I am the last one in my group to order, since I take longer to order.  After telling the waiter my order, I inform them of my allergies by explaining that I have life-threatening food allergies to my specific allergens.

I let them know that cross contamination could cause a reaction.  I ask them to inform the cooks of my allergies and ask if they can find out if there would be any issues with the meal I ordered based on my allergies. I have an extensive list of allergies. So sometimes, if I am unsure if the waiter got them all, I’ll have them read the list back to me.  If I ever feel uncomfortable, I will ask to speak to the manager because they tend to have more knowledge about what is going on in the kitchen. As long as you take the right precautions, you can safely enjoy a meal out with your family and friends despite having food allergies!

Sara S.

Food Allergies and Anxiety: How I Dealt with Seeing a Jaguar at Lunch

Worried Couple

Remember when people lived in caves and dodged jaguars all day? Me neither. But my brain does. That’s why, when I’m stressed out, my blood surges with adrenaline, drains to my extremities, and my attention hones in on the source of my stress. My brain is trying to help me dodge a jaguar even though that’s no longer my biggest problem.

Flash forward a few thousand years and what are our threats? Predators aren’t much of an issue anymore. Five years ago, however, I had a confrontation with a formidable opponent and it almost cost me my life. That foe was my lunch.

Having been contaminated at some point by peanuts, the food that puts me at-risk for anaphylaxis, the lunch sent my body into shock and only fast-acting doctors were able to save my life. I’ve heard this story repeated by many other people with allergies. But here is the part that often gets left out. After all the other symptoms faded, and my life was no longer in any immediate danger, I experienced crippling anxiety around food. My brain now considered every meal to be a jaguar.

At first I was nervous any time I ate. I never realized before how many sensations I experience with every mouthful of food. From itchy spots on my skin, to dry mouth, to an itchy tongue, and even stomach cramps, my new adrenaline fueled state of mind could not help but see danger in hundreds of little things that surrounded the normal experience of eating. For a while, even thinking about a meal cooked by someone else sent me into a full blown panic attack.

As time passed, the anxiety started to fade. But even months later I struggled to “act cool” in a restaurant. I was always on edge. Now, several years later, I still find myself losing my cool sometimes. My problem shifted from how to live with a severe allergy to how to live with food at all.

Through trial and error, as well as with input from some fantastic friends, I have a few strategies I use to overcome my anxiety when it arises and, more importantly, to ensure that I don’t have any major panic attacks.

The most important part of getting back to normal was coming to grips with the fact that anxiety is normal. Before this reaction, I had never experienced a panic attack. At first I fought against these with will power and resistance. Yet I inevitably made things worse. Once, while at a low point in this journey, I had been forcing down anxiety for several days when it all came exploding out at once…in the middle of a busy airport.

If you’ve never seen an adult throw a full-on temper tantrum, let me tell you, it isn’t pretty. It was embarrassing, stressful, and worst of all I was powerless as it happened. After this incident, I had the opportunity to hear from many other people with allergies. I wasn’t weird or abnormal for reacting this way. This is how it goes. In time I was able to gradually “let go” and accept that the trauma I experienced naturally led to a belief that food was dangerous. As I got better and better, I could sense an adrenaline rush coming on and just allow it to happen. I’d feel the surge rise and fall and then go back to my day.

Acceptance was only the first phase of the journey. In order to avoid the occurrence of the panic attacks in the first place, I realized I needed to do a better job of planning ahead. This goes right back to that caveman brain of mine. The panic response comes from being surprised. I began to plan my meals. Often my meals out of the house were spontaneous. I would be out with friends and we would stop at a restaurant wherever we were when we got hungry. I had to change and start telling people up front that I wasn’t ready to be adventurous yet. I had to tell people that there were only certain places I felt comfortable eating and that was that. Whenever possible, I didn’t even enter the building without first calling to speak to a chef. In other cases, I made my own food and avoided the situation all together.

The hardest part was realizing that managing this anxiety was going to be a long process. To help with that I had to be open about it. I started talking to my friends, family, and even co-workers. It was hard and vulnerable but it was also very helpful. I taught people about the things that triggered my panic and they helped me avoid them.

Despite all of my progress and efforts, there are still moments that trigger panic. If you think about it, that is good. If I have a real reaction, that panic may end-up keeping me alive. But, if I have an anxiety attack due to a false alarm, I need a strategy to snap back out of it. For this I found that my best tool is a good self-assessment. Before I continue, please note: I am not a doctor and this assessment is of my own design and not to be taken as medical advice. My self assessment is a system I use to quickly check for some of my biggest symptoms of an allergic reaction.

I bite my tongue to check for itchiness and swelling, pinch my ear to check for itchiness, lift the sleeve of my shirt (the whole shirt if I have enough privacy) to check for hives, and take a few deep breaths to test my airway and also calm down. This will either help me quickly determine that I am indeed having a reaction, or, instead, will reassure me that my symptoms aren’t present. I repeat this assessment (and a few other checks) regularly to see if anything changes. The trick with this one is to understand that I do have an allergy and that I do need to take it seriously. But I can do this calmly.

Life with a severe allergy can be very difficult. As humans, we are wired to react swiftly and intensely to dangers. When we experience the trauma that comes with an allergic reaction, this can lead to some mixed up signals in our brains and cause us to carry around extra anxiety. Now that I’ve shared my story with you, I want to encourage you to share yours. The anxiety and panic that many of us live with are normal occurrences and will never disappear. But, by being open and honest about these, we can help make the process easier and the panic attacks less frequent.

Jason Brennan 

Movie Nights at Home: The Snacker’s Guide

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I recently hosted a Hobbit movie marathon at my house with a few of my Middle-Earth-loving friends. For those unfamiliar with The Hobbit trilogy, it’s essentially three awesome fantasy adventure films based on a single short children’s novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Some people say three movies was excessive. I disagree. But that argument can be saved for another time.

A very essential part of this marathon day, and any movie night at home for that matter, is FOOD! If you’re like me, snacks are a big part of the movie watching experience. However, with a food allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, I have to be careful what I eat and what the people around me eat. For this reason, I like to involve myself in the snack planning. That way, I can enjoy the movie more as I will be more confident that everything will be safe to eat. As a side note, before I share some of my snack ideas, be sure to clean the surfaces where you will be sitting. If it’s at a friend’s house, offer to clean the couch and nearby tables to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Also, politely ask everyone to wash their hands before handling any food. It’s really not a big deal to ask and your friends will appreciate your diligence.

Here are a few ideas for allergy-friendly snacks for a movie night at home. Please keep in mind your own food allergies while reading through this list and adjust according to your food preferences and requirements.

1) Popcorn. This is a staple food for most movie watchers. I like to buy unpopped kernels so that I can prepare them how I like. If I’m feeling adventurous after popping them, I’ll sprinkle cinnamon on top. Or sometimes butter and salt. If you like spicy foods, chili powder is also a fun popcorn topping. You could also try coconut oil for something different. The possibilities are really endless with popcorn!

2) Veggies and dip. This one takes a little more planning. I like to make sure that I buy the veggies and prepare them myself so that I am confident that there is no cross-contamination risk when chopping them up. As for dip, store bought dips are great. But sometimes I prefer to make my own. Adding spices to a mayonnaise or plain Greek yogurt base can make for great dips. Then simply serve and enjoy!

3) Chips. I’m a big chip fan. However, if you are allergic to wheat or any other chip ingredient, the good news is that some companies have found innovative ways to make chips. For example, using beans instead of wheat (very, very tasty!!). You can also make your own using other ingredients. There are hundreds of simple recipes and instructions online or in books describing how to make chips out of bananas, kale, apples, potatoes… pretty much anything! These are great for impressing your friends with something homemade and tasty.

4) Candy. This one is tough to make at home. But I’m sure there are recipes out there somewhere on how to do so. If not, just be sure to read the ingredients twice to ensure that your allergen(s) are not present.

5) Pizza. This is another great food for movie night at home. Just be sure to read ingredients and/or inform the pizza maker about the severity of your allergies. If you feel uneasy about ordering or buying oven-ready pizzas, it’s really simple to make your own. Use a tortilla or a bagel, top it with your favourite ingredients, bake, and share!

6) Other. I will leave this other section for you to fill in with your own ideas. Be creative and safe!

Also, feel free to post comments about your allergy-friendly snack ideas for movie nights at home. I’d love to hear them!

 Dylan B.

Teaching Others How To Use Your Auto-injector

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Note: These recommendations apply only to the EpiPen® brand of auto-injector and are not substitutions for learning how to use one from a qualified professional.

Teaching your friends and family about how to use your auto-injector is essential when you are at-risk for Anaphylaxis. If you are ever in a situation where you are unable to administer your auto-injector on your own, it is important that whoever you are with knows how to help you. For that reason, I always make sure that people who I spend a lot of time with know about my allergies, where I keep my auto-injector, and what to do if I have an allergic reaction.

When I teach someone about using an auto-injector, I take it out and let the person hold it to ensure that they understand visually. I personally use the auto-injector and try to keep my instructions as simple as possible using two steps:

1. Hold the auto-injector with the orange tip pointing downwards and remove the blue safety cap by pulling it straight off.

2. Firmly push the orange tip of the pen into the middle of the outside of the individuals thigh and hold for several seconds after hearing a click.

I always instruct the individual that the auto-injector can inject through pants and to immediately call 911 after using the auto-injector.

To ensure that the person understands, you can ask them to explain your instructions back to you. By teaching others about your auto-injector, both you and your friends can feel more comfortable about your allergies.

Sara S.

Temptation and Allergies

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The spring/summer holiday season is now upon you! The weather is nice, school is done for the year, and you are eager to get out and explore the world.  Usually, when travelling, some feel the need to break out of their daily routines, to let loose, and to let all of the daily “constraints” go. Given that living with allergies does require attention and focus, you may also be tempted to break out of your “allergy-safe” routines. The bottom line is that your health is your most important asset. But having an allergy-safe routine does not need to be a chore. Nor does it have to hamper your enjoyment. Below, I have listed some common “holiday temptations” and ways you can counter each temptation.

Temptation 1: Eating Airplane Food

You are sitting on a plane with your family and friends. You are excited about your vacation and all of the adventures you are about to experience. Because of your excitement, you forgot to pack your own “safe” food for your flight. Your flight is a four-hour-long trek to the Caribbean. So you figure that you can hold-out for that time. Two hours in, everyone around you, including your friends and family are eating airplane food. The food is not all that appetizing. But you start to feel hungry and start seriously thinking about “risking it.”

Compromise:

After having traveled for a number of years with allergies, my biggest piece of advice would be to never eat airplane food. Always bring your own meals. Aside from the fact that most airlines in North America have stopped serving meals on domestic and Caribbean flights, airplane food is not safe. All meals are processed in a central plant, so controlling for specific allergens becomes nearly impossible for the airline. Before you leave, pack a bag of your favorite snacks. Have it with you just in case you get hungry.

Temptation 2: Eating Hotel Food

You have just gotten off a long flight overseas. You are tired and jet-lagged. It is around 9 pm and you are starving. The most convenient option for you at the moment is the hotel restaurant that is currently serving dinner. You are too tired to cook your own food and you find the restaurant alternative tempting. It is fast and easy after all.

Compromise:

Restaurant food can be a toss-up. There are different variables that you have to take into account before eating anything at a restaurant. When travelling, one of the biggest “variables” is the language barrier. When eating at a restaurant, you must communicate the severity of your allergy to restaurant staff and, ideally, the chef. If you communicate with the staff, but you feel as though they do not understanding the severity of your allergy, do not order from that restaurant. One alternative would be to pack ready-made, canned foods with you. If you want food that is quick and easy, this is the safest and easiest alternative.

Temptation 3: All-day excursions

When travelling abroad, one great way to immerse yourself in a new culture is to take part in all-day excursions and tours. One aspect of these excursions that is commonly over-looked is that meals are provided during the tour. The tours usually start early in the morning (7am) and end in the early afternoon or evening. The tours will usually bring you to local restaurants to experience traditional cuisines. You may be tempted to partake in these meals.

Compromise

Planning is always key. The day before the excursion, call the tour operator and see if a meal will be provided. Next, ask the tour operator if they have an allergy policy in place or if others with allergies have taken the tour in the past. Regardless of your answer, always pack your own food with you. Pack something simple like a sandwich, some chips, a safe granola bar, etcetera just in case you need it. When at the restaurant, speak to the staff. Similar to the note above, if you don’t feel as though the staff understands the severity if your allergy, don’t risk it. Eat the food you brought with you.

Also note, that your auto-injector must be kept with you at all times, especially when travelling abroad! This is key to your safety!

Hopefully you find these tips useful. Travelling can be a lot of fun! With the proper planning and precautions, your holidays can be both fun and safe.

Saverio M.

Allergies and Anxiety

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It can be tough growing up with potentially fatal allergies. There just are no two ways about it. When you are in elementary school, usually your parents, teachers, and school staff members have your back and make sure that you are okay. And, when you aren’t in school, your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings look out for you as well. The transition to beginning to deal with your allergies on your own can also be a scary time in the life of someone with serious allergies.

But, because it is something that your parents and others have been preparing you for for years, it isn’t something that you should look at as terrifying. Often, when you reach junior high, your parents will give you a little bit more freedom. And this includes the freedom to begin to take care of and manage different situations in which you might come into contact with your allergen(s). But, as you remember, you knew that you had the tools to do all of this for yourself. You also knew that your parents were there if you ever needed them.

When you get into high school and, more so, university, the expectation is that you should be able to handle managing your allergies for yourself. Here are a few tips to always remember and keep you alert and prepared for all situations. One, and this can’t be emphasized enough, always take your auto-injector with you no matter where you go. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think that you will be eating. Bring it anyway and have it on you not just nearby. Second, make sure someone with you knows how to properly administer your auto-injector should something happen. Last, but by no means least, if you think you are having a reaction, use your auto-injector. You are better safe than sorry!!

Aaron S.

 

Expectations when Eating Out with Allergies

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When talking to other people about my allergies, a common topic that comes up is how hard it must be to eat out at restaurants.  For the most part, however, I have had nothing but positive experiences when it comes to eating out. I will admit that there have been some less than positive incidents, for example where it was not detected that the menu item I ordered contained food allergens. And only once did a restaurant refuse to serve me because of my allergies. While these are not positive events, they for the most part are preventable by having my own routine for how I inform servers about my allergies along with the responsibility I expect to see from the restaurant for serving someone with allergies.

The expectations I have when eating at a restaurant include always making sure I get confirmation that the chef is going to be informed about my allergies and that whatever I ordered is going to be prepared in an area where no cross-contamination will occur.  When I order food, I also expect waiters or waitresses to be investigative to ensure that the meal I am ordering is actually free of any possible allergens. One of the incidents where I had an allergic reaction in a restaurant occurred because the waitress misread the ingredient label for a veggie burger, which actually contained egg.  Therefore, I always prefer when a restaurant has a binder that contains a list of what ingredients are in what menu items. Since this is not always possible at every restaurant, I also find that it is a good sign when a waiter/waitress comes back to the table to verify ingredients with me— as this signals they actually have been looking into the food I have ordered.

Overall it is my hope that restaurants will be very accommodating when serving someone with allergies since they want to encourage business but also don’t want to trigger an allergic reaction in one of their patrons.  The incident where a restaurant refused to serve me occurred at a restaurant in Toronto. This restaurant had all of their food shipped in from an outside supplier and could not verify all the ingredients in their food and then could not guarantee any food items were definitely allergen free.  This was obviously a frustrating incident. But it was the right call since no food item could fully assured to be safe. Some incidents where restaurants get ‘brownie’ points for their service in regards to managing food allergies include when the chef comes out and personally talks to me about menu options and what is safe for me.

This exceeds my expectations for eating out and completely reassures me that my meal will be safe. Furthermore, the more flexible a restaurant is with altering their menu options to make safe meal choices also puts a restaurant in my good books.  This gesture is obviously much more work for a restaurant kitchen but is a testament to their commitment to providing an allergy- safe restaurant experience for their guests. It is a shared partnership between myself and the restaurant I eat out at to ensure that the food I eat is allergy friendly. For the most part, however, I must commend restaurants for the steps they take to make my experiences eating out safe and enjoyable. What have your experiences been like eating out at restaurants with allergies?

Caitlyn P. 

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